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Should the Digital Divide Be Closed? June 23, 2010

Posted by dataduchess in education, InformationIssues.
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Interesting bit from the Freakonomics blog on the New York Times website, pointing to a new study that is showing a statistically significant DECREASE in math and reading test scores among students with home computer and internet access.

Meanwhile, students with limited access to computers and internet did not experience this statistical decrease. Does this mean that we should not be working to close the digital divide? That we should not be trying to make computers and internet accessible to every child?

Another point found in the study was that students who had computers and internet at home, but were limited in usage due to “more effective parental monitoring” did not experience the same negative effect on test scores. Perhaps the children in these households put the technology and internet access to more productive uses?

This study is seems to indicate that computers, internet and technology are not only not a magic pill to increase test scores, but without the proper guidance, may be a distraction and hindrance to students’ academic performance.

Does this mean that we should not close the “digital divide”? What do you think?

Monday Book Review: Crossworld: One Man’s Journey into America’s Crossword Obsession March 15, 2010

Posted by dataduchess in Book Reviews, Book vs. Movie.
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In my opinion, crossword puzzles are a fun diversion from the stresses of every day life. I first started doing the New York Times Daily crossword puzzles during high school, when, through some newspaper readership program, stacks of NY Times were delivered to the school for students’ use. Always a lover of games and puzzles, I was instantly attracted to the Times’ crossword, a perfect balance of challenge and the satisfaction of achievement. Over the years, my obsession with the NY Times puzzle waxed and waned, depending on the availability of the newspaper (and whether I could get a copy for free!).

In 2005, I found Marc Romano’s book, Crossworld: One Man’s Journey into America’s Crossword Obsession in the “New and Interesting” Display at my local library, and immediately upset the composition of the display by borrowing it – and though I felt bad about leaving the empty space, I knew the librarian would be happy someone was interested in what she had put out. I didn’t get a chance to read the book before its due date, so I dutifully returned it for the next reader, and stopped at the bookstore to buy my own copy – which in the last 5 years, I have picked up and put down at least a dozen times.

I kept giving the book another chance, because I truly love doing crossword puzzles, and there were more than a few bits about the history of puzzles in America, Will Shortz’ personal puzzle ephemera collection, and tips about crossword puzzle construction and solving. I was also curious to read about the author’s first-hand account of a rookie’s experience at the American Crossword Tournament, for which he had trained by doing over 2,000 puzzles. Unfortunately, I despised the tone of the author, and could only handle reading his extremely arrogant yet still somehow self-loathing babble for so long. He brags about how cool it is of him to take his Thomas Pynchon novel down to the bar rather than make conversation with any of the introverted tournament competitors, and drinks a neat scotch and soda while awaiting the “cool kids” to arrive in the bar. Oh – and let me not forget to mention, the “cool kids” crowd, or “Cru” (a take on crew, from “cruciverbalist”, a designer or aficionado of crossword puzzles) is headed up by one of the author’s favorite young constructors, Brendan Emmett Quigley, upon whom Romano can barely conceal his massive man-crush. The entire section of the book about the tournament itself was spent either noting what a bad idea it was to take so many anti-anxiety pills and thus be floating around in a cloud, or mooning over where is Brendan now, and how is Brendan scoring and look at all the groupies Brendan has, and on and on.

Several years ago, I learned that Will Shortz, editor of the NY Times Crossword Puzzle, has been coordinating the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament since 1978. The 33rd annual tournament was held just a few weeks ago in Brooklyn, NY, and the event has grown to be a weekend-long expo-like extravaganza, with vendors hawking all kinds of crossword-themed paraphernalia, game-related activities, receptions and ceremonies. The Tournament was the focus of a 2006 documentary, Wordplay, which undoubtedly led to the increase in the tournament’s popularity which precipitated a move from the Stamford Marriott venue which had hosted the tournament for 30 years, to the larger Brooklyn Bridge Marriott. A solid documentary, Wordplay was an intriguing peek into the world of crossword constructors and solvers, though possibly, only because I was already interested!

Even if you are interested in Crossword Puzzles, or the Tournament, you ought to skip this book and rent the movie. Wordplay was a great documentary that covered substantially the same ground, minus the attitude.

The Smell of E-books March 11, 2010

Posted by dataduchess in reading.
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I came across this essay from last week’s New York Times, and admittedly, only read the first paragraph before I was inspired to write this post. Here’s what it said:

People who reject e-books often say they can’t live without the heft, the texture and — curiously — the scent of traditional books. This aria of hypersensual book love is not my favorite performance. I sometimes suspect that those who gush about book odor might not like to read. If they did, why would they waste so much time inhaling?

From methyl_lives' flickr stream Licensed under Creative Commons

Any guesses why I just had to respond? It’s no secret around here that we are big readers. And, I think pupfiction would agree with me that there is definitely something sensual about reading a physical book. Since I was a kid, I have recognized the different smells of books, and the scent of a brand new book is right up there with fresh from the oven apple pie and Final Touch Fabric Softener as one of my all-time favorites. Library books have a distinct smell as well, and though not as pleasing to me as a brand new book, still pleasurable in its association to the joy of reading a good book.

So why would the author of this essay claim that people who love the smell of books must not like to read? I know I am not the exception to the rule when it comes to enjoying the feel of a book. And for the record, I like reading eBooks too- I use the Kindle App on my iPod Touch, and will consume any written words in any form. Enjoying the scent of a book doesn’t change that.

What do you think? We’ve asked before what you think of eBooks, but let’s ask again… how much does the medium of your words matter? And have you ever noticed the smell of books?

Chatroulette- Another great concept to be abused. February 16, 2010

Posted by dataduchess in Technology can do anything.
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1 comment so far

I recently discovered that one of my favorite bands from college has a Twitter feed.  Oddly, not many of their tweets are music related, including one this morning about a new obsession. It was a link to an article from last week’s New York Times BITS column about a relatively new web service called Chatroulette.

Chatroulette is a web-based video-chat site that once you log in, matches you randomly with another user to video-chat with. Perhaps I’m a little paranoid or cynical because my first thought was “but you never know who you’ll be matched with, it might be a crazy pervert,” instead of the intended “this is so cool, I might make contact with someone from another country and learn about their culture”. However, some of the comments to this NYTimes article by people who tried the service suggest that my first instinct is not too far off base.

I make absolutely NO COMMENT on what you might encounter if you check this out, and in fact, doubt that I will try it myself. But, the NY Times article is worth a read because it features an interview with the creator of the site, allegedly a 17-year old Russian teenager, who thought teens might like to “party with” other teens. There have been a few discrepancies pointed out that make the validity of the teen’s claim of creation questionable, but if he DID, I’m impressed, despite the creeps!

Can Social Media Break Through the Paywall? February 5, 2010

Posted by dataduchess in InformationIssues.
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Newspapers have been struggling to maintain revenue and readership, as readers have replaced their print subscriptions with free online resources. Notably, the New York Times recently announced it was considering putting its online content behind a paywall, meaning it would only be available to subscribers. This comes following a number of other print media sources installing paywalls, including the Wall Street Journal.

But these days, social media plays a huge role in the spread of all kinds of media, whether it is a video going viral, or a news scoop breaking on CNN’s Twitter feed, or an announcement of award nominees on the Oscars’ Facebook Page.

That’s because people like to be connected and find things in common. Before the Internet, before TV, before radio, before paper even, people would gather and spread the news or stories. The only reason some of the ancient classics have survived was because of the oral tradition of gathering together and repeating stories over and over through the ages.

Now, I’m not even remotely trying to claim that we need to be able to share news through social media for posterity, just pointing out that it is in man’s nature to want to share the things he finds interesting (at least that’s how it seems to me).  Whether it is through Facebook or Twitter, or even e-mail, sharing links to interesting stories or funny pictures, or current events – its a way of connecting with each other.

For better or for worse, more and more the electronic connections are replacing the face-to-face connections, or even the voice-to-voice. It’s not just kids and teenagers either – email and instant messaging have replaced walking down the hall in offices, and texting has replaced phone calls for many people. With many of my friends (if they can even still be called that) the only interaction we have any more is sharing articles and bits of information found on the internet with each other, via e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, or even this blog.

You might be surprised to know that I am actually a proponent of Intellectual Property Laws. I understand why and how they are are intended to work to promote progress and the proliferation of information, when not abused to prevent it. Maybe I’ll try and explain it someday, but for now, lets just say I get why the newspapers feel not only the need, but the right to limit access to their content. And I’m not going to argue that I would feel differently if it was my company that was hemorrhaging profits while giving away product for free. However, knowing how people interact with their news and their media, and their sharing sites, it still seems to me refusing to allow users to share content is a mistake.

This article points out that newspapers who put their content behind a paywall, do in fact see a drop in traffic to their site, which in turn leads to less revenue from advertising. Can the revenue generated by subscription fees make up that difference? We’ll have to wait and see… But, the problem of sharing still remains… how many users will want to subscribe and support a site that doesn’t allow them to share their favorite topics?

The Ethics of Debarking: Not a Gray Area February 3, 2010

Posted by pupfiction in Uncategorized.
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Perhaps this is a bit off-topic for the Infomavens, but I feel compelled to write about and share a New York Times article on the ethicality of debarking dogs. You see, it’s a pet-peeve (pun intended) of mine. Apparently, some dog owners have either decided or been forced to “debark” their dogs due to complaining neighbors, or (I am guessing) their own headaches. The article particularly mentions a few people who have chosen to debark – one who lives in an apartment complex, and one who “has more than a dozen dogs at a time”, and regularly shows these dogs. Debarking a dog is not suggested and even considered inhumane by most veterinarians and groups dedicated to animal rights. “The American Veterinary Medical Association recommends that the surgery only be done ‘after behavioral modification efforts to correct excessive vocalization have failed'” (New York Times).

One of my "barkers"

Not to paraphrase the famous “dog whisperer” Cesar Milan, whose practices are questionable, but Milan often finds that problem dogs (and those who excessively bark) do so because they do not receive as much exercise as they need. Having a dog is a huge responsibility and one that people frequently take on without proper preparation. Dogs need to be trained and dogs need exercise. Even less trainable dogs can be helped with training aids like bark collars which deliver low voltage shocks to the dog when it barks. Supporters of debarking report that their dogs did not change after the surgery, that they were not “sad”. Dogs are resilient; that is true. But does that mean that debarking is not unethical? Seeing as barks are one of the primary ways dogs communicate, it’s just about as ethical as cutting the vocal cords of your wailing baby. Think about that.

Information is Power, But Do We Want Everyone to Have Power? February 2, 2010

Posted by pupfiction in InformationIssues.
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Sir Francis Bacon first said that, “knowledge is power”. And if knowledge can be equated with information then people have never had as much power as they have now. Information is everywhere and proliferating at an exponential rate. Information can be used for good or ill. It can be used to create a weapon, produce and disseminate illegal drugs, or unleash biological weapons. It can be used to learn about our environment, our bodies, and to help us understand how to live peacefully by not repeating history’s mistakes. These are ideas we have all grown up with. They are trite, but true. For thousands of years information was withheld from certain classes; it was the privilege of the rich to be educated and literate. Even libraries, for many years, were elitist clubs, the membership paid by its rich clientele. Nowadays we believe we have a right to information. We demand it both from our government (i.e. the Freedom of Information Act), our banks, our credit cards, even commercials whose disclaimers have grown to laughable lengths. We crave this access to information because we know it protects us. But what if this transparency has its downfalls? What if this transparency gives not only terrorists the power to fly commercial airliners but enables “a crippling attack on computer and telecommunications networks”, as the New York Times reports intelligence agents told lawmakers yesterday, stating that “an increasingly sophisticated group of enemies has ‘severely threatened’ the sometimes fragile systems undergirding the country’s information systems.” New Scientist, in mid-January published an article expounding the same fears. With its usual alarmist gusto, New Scientist asked, “Are we in danger of knowing too much?”, citing specific examples of public knowledge that could be used in catastrophically fatal ways, such as the publishing of a virus’s genome.

A t-shirt design from cafepress.com

While the New York Times and New Scientist ask these seemingly novel questions, these are the exact questions we have been asked to mull over and debate in library school. I particularly remember one class where the professor asked us if a public library should carry “The Anarchist Cookbook.” Being the militant liberals we are, we mostly agreed that the it was the duty of the public library to carry such a book and furthermore, that librarians should not question those who borrow it.  Perhaps you don’t agree with my argument and that of Francis Bacon. Perhaps you think books are innocuous. Then why then did the Patriot Act “expand[ed] the authority of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and law enforcement to gain access to… library records, including stored electronic data and communications” (ala.org). And why have most libraries, since the inception of the act, changed their databases to automatically erase the records of their patrons? Who are we? Potential terrorist sympathizers or the militant guardians of free and equal access to information? In the world of 2010 are we the enemies or the last bastions of intellectual freedom? What do you think?

iBooks: the Run Down January 28, 2010

Posted by pupfiction in Uncategorized.
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Ever since watching Steve Jobs announce and describe Apple’s latest project yesterday- the iPad – a tablet computer, I felt compelled to talk about iBooks (an e-book reader app) and how it may affect the e-book market. But alas, 700,000 blogs and web sites (or somewhere around there) had already done it! So I am going to sum up Flavorwire’s “5 Ways the Apple iPad Could Change e-Books”.

From Engadget.com

1. iBooks will allow publishers more control over e-book pricing by creating a formidable opponent to Amazon.com (although there are some fears that iBooks will turn e-books into the market that iTunes turned music into).

2. The iPad will use a new format for e-books which could change the market by forcing competitors to adopt the same standards, thus creating a universal e-book format, or, iBooks could attempt to monopolize the market.

3. The iPad does not have an e-ink screen like Kindles which means, unfortunately, that it is hard on the eyes, but fortunately, that color is possible. (Maybe I don’t know enough about these e-ink screens but couldn’t turning down the brightness of the iPad have the same effect?)

4. Lots of major publishers have already signed on.

From Engadget.com

5. The iPad starts at $500, and while this is much more expensive than a Kindle, the iPad is, after all, a computer, and not just an e-book reader.

There are also numerous concerns about Jobs lack of showing textbooks on the iPad. The Kindle has been tested in many colleges and universities and students like it because it enables the taking of notes in the margins. Not so for the iPad (or at least not yet). ZDNet questions whether the iBooks will be able to get Apple back into education and raises some good questions of the limits of iBooks and the iPad.

What I was most excited about was the new New York Times app which makes the newspaper available in a format that looks once again like the paper you used to get thrown onto your front lawn.

From Engadget.com

What do you think about the iPad? Did it live up to the hype?

For more information on the iPad check out pictures and descriptions of the live event from Engadget here.

Stop Freaking Out and Head to the Library! January 20, 2010

Posted by pupfiction in Uncategorized.
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Okay, so you’ve probably heard by now that the New York Times is going to start charging for (frequent) access in 2011. Take a deep breath, relax; it’s all going to be okay. You’ve actually been paying for the New York Times this whole time –with your taxes. Almost all public libraries have a subscription to a database that covers the New York Times. And even if they don’t, most local colleges allow people to have a visitor pass or use the databases on campus. And now that we are in the 21st century you don’t even have to get in your car and drive to the library – you can access the newspapers you’ve been paying for this whole time right from your desktop. And if you’re still moping about changes to access, remember that changes like these allow struggling publications to remain in existence. Obviously the Times wouldn’t charge for access if it could afford not to.

New Yorkers – your access is right here.

Infographic: Movie Popularity by Area January 12, 2010

Posted by pupfiction in Uncategorized.
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I realized that Infomavens’ is far over due for an infographics post so I was pleasantly surprised when I found this one detailing Netflix rentals by movie and area (twelve different cities). First check out the article so that some interesting patterns are elucidated for you. Then check out the graphic here or click on the screen shot below.

As is often the case, the anomalies of data collection are far more interesting that the norm. Browbeat (Slate.com’s culture blog) found a few zip codes harboring top ten lists that were far from the norm. These zip codes ended up being from airports, colleges, areas dense in movie studios and zip codes belonging to federal or state government facilities. These conditions led Browbeat to believe that the top ten of that zip code could just be one person’s account, or in the case of the college, reflect the tastes of one particular age group. What I found most interesting/entertaining was that Twilight was number one in Universal Studies zip code, and Robot Chicken was popular with the feds. What did you think was most interesting?